‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and cover compelling stories, challenging ideas and integrity from around the world.
‘Their Way’ is about making entrepreneurship, and the challenges that come with it, easier. We feature insightful people across different communities, visions and industries. Because we believe interesting things happen when different ideas collide.
This month, we’re speaking with Gawan Fagard and Gwendolyn Lootens.
Horst: Thanks for having us here today! Considering the circumstances, you unfortunately can’t welcome us at Cinemaximilaan in its full capacity, in all of its eclecticism and dynamism. Though we’re very curious to hear more about how this beautiful project came to be!
Gawan Fagard: Entrepreneurs often have a passion, which then becomes an idea, to then evolve into a company or a project. We actually never thought about Cinemaximiliaan as a project, it was more like a life-changing event, something we didn’t control.
I’m an art historian and researcher; Gwendolyn is an artist and documentary filmmaker. In September 2015, many newcomers arrived in the Maximiliaan-park in Brussels. It became a spontaneous gathering: civilians organizing themselves to offer help, see to basic needs and welcome people that were lining up for asylum. We decided to go and see how we could help. We brought our beamer, to share our passion for cinema.
Gwendolyn: I was very involved with my own artistic practice at the time. The humanitarian crisis and the way it became apparent in Brussels was so overwhelming. I started to think more about the idea of sharing and solidarity, and couldn’t just continue working individually anymore. We decided to engage ourselves.
Gawan: They proposed to watch movies together, and bring some light to the night, some warmth to these harsh surroundings. That’s where Cinemaximiliaan was born. When we first mentioned we would be back next week to our audience, they immediately said: “oh no, you mean tomorrow right?” So that’s how it all started. The rumor spread, more people showed up, volunteers started to help out, a Facebook page was put online to communicate our activities, and people proposed movies from their own culture and background. Many of the people we met 5 years ago are still part of the team. Our activities include screening movies in asylum centers as well as in private homes. The idea is to generate an encounter, bring people together. We also started to produce our own films. Everything revolves around the project house, here in Molenbeek - the heart of our endeavor. It’s not a permanent house for people, but it’s a family house where you go to when you feel worried, when you need it, or when you want to celebrate something.
Alketa: I arrived from Albania in Belgium three years ago, and became involved as well. To me, Cinemaximiliaan opens doors, it allows people to see their own potential. It feels like my house here, a house were I met so many people, where one can be welcomed into a community. We do a lot together: we produce music, film, events, and we get new people involved through our visits in the asylum centers. I’ve been mostly involved in hosting, taking care of the house, preparing everything for when we welcome groups. I’m a clothing maker; I actually made the big black curtains that you see here, that can transform the space into what we need it for.
Ruth: Me, I’m the neighbor of Cinemaximiliaan. I constantly heard more and more noises coming from here, and decided to slide in one day. Starting out as a volunteer, I finally joined the team in October last year. I’m the house coordinator, which means I will be running the project of the B&B that we’re creating in the front part. This will be a place where people can book a room, and also something that we will put in service of other artistic institutions in Brussels. The idea is to reinforce Cinemaximiliaan as a meeting place, a crossing path for artists from all kinds of backgrounds passing through Brussels.
Horst: How did Cinemaximiliaan, born out of your sense of social urgency and combined with a passion for cinema, came to play such a pivotal role in the lives of many people?
Gawan: Yes indeed, even though it started from watching movies all together, people quickly came to us with ideas and ambitions. They wanted to produce; had scenarios, wanted to act, or help out in the creation of a new movie. But of course you don’t make a film as easily as you watch it, especially not without a budget (which we still don’t have today).Many professionals joined us on this road of experimentation; we had a workshop with Béla Tarr for instance. It’s not about co-creation, but more about supporting individuals with a strong artistic vision, and involving as many enthusiastic people along the road. We put a lot of emphasis on the individual author, facilitating people’s potential.
Asides from that, we have a few dogmas; most notably we shoot everything in the house: we made it flexible so it can be transformed into any kind of movie set, or a rehearsal place. Secondly, we produce our movies with everyone who wants to be involved: professional or not professional. It can be a one-time experience of personal expression, be of influence for cinematographic experiments, it can be a tool for networking and looking for jobs, and it can be a step in one’s artistic career.
Fatma Osman: I arrived in Brussels from Somalia, and have been involved with Cinemaximiliaan for the past five years. I was living in an asylum center myself when they visited, and that’s how I enrolled. I wanted to help reach out to other people in asylum centers, because I know how this isolation feels, the sense of having no connection to society. It’s necessary to build bridges and bring out people’s potential, give them the opportunity to do something with their lives, passions and talents. So I now organize the visits to the asylum centers, and take along as many volunteers and translators as possible. Per center, we arrive at making 5 to 6 people curious. Everyone gets in touch and visits, or comes back, at their own pace. They have a lot of challenges ahead of them, but they know that they can come at any time. For me, it helped me make my dreams come true, I made my first film Undocumented Love, and stimulated me in many ways to grow as a person.
Horst: There is a very fine, almost non-exising line between private and your professional activities?
Gawan: We actually used to live in a much smaller apartment. We started Cinemaximiliaan collaborations already at that time. A lot of the people we work with are dependent of public transport, so when they missed their trains, they would spent the night at our place. Like cigarettes in a box, all crammed together. When we were looking for a bigger place for the project, Shamsia, who was working with us, came with the idea of looking for a bigger home – a place where we could do the film-making, as well as continuing to host and welcome people in a warm domestic setting. We still live here, so yes, our life is very much embedded within the project.
Horst: How is Cinemaximiliaan organized financially?
Gawan: This isn’t project that was created behind a desk, for which we got a business plan, starting budget, investors or any of that. Our finances are very multi-layered. Until today, we have up to 15 different public and private sources. It’s project-based financing, which makes it complex and not very efficient, as well as challenging when dealing with private donors and public grant institutions. But it also reflects our diversity, and it makes us less vulnerable or dependent from one main source of income. After five years, we’re now hoping to receive structural funding, in order to expand our activities and become a bit more efficient. We hired a few extra people; Laura in charge of events; Ruth coordinating the house B&B project; Fatma organizing the visits to the asylum centers; Diren in charge of film projects; Hannibal for music… we’re very consistently building a team. We’re actually at a breaking point in the growth of our organization: trying to professionalize in order to achieve more, while retaining the charm of a small-scale and very personal organization. The latter is our most primary condition to be able to remain spontaneous, be inventive within the moment, react to the realities that we’re faced with, and not become this heavy bureaucratic institution. What really helped us in the past years was that the owner of the house gave us the first chance to buy the place. We needed one million euros, so we scanned all the corners of Belgium for private and public sponsoring during one year. Finally, we found three philanthropic families who wanted to support our endeavor. Together with the help of the City of Brussels, we were able to purchase the backhouse as well as the front-house. This consolidates a future: we can maintain and expand our activities, and focus on something other then rent.
Gwendolyn: Generally, people get involved and engaged with the cause by encountering us and the people with whom we’re doing this project with. So we invite as many people as possible. Bringing the people who are building this together, together with the ones facilitating it. Once they are in, they remain very passionate to help and continue to be involved. It’s all based on trust, even though that is a cliché to say.
Horst: How will you manage the other challenge that Cinemaximiliaan, a house for personal contact, is facing with Covid-19?
Gwendolyn: It’s tricky; we have to reinvent ourselves. The people we work with belong to a very fragile layer of society, so we have to be extremely careful. I think we will evolve even more towards working on an individual level, more personal, and one on one. The contact amongst the people themselves is extremely important as well though different generations helping each other out, learning from each other, supporting them going through the pain of the first arrival and all the insecurity that is involved with that. For many people, Cinemaximiliaan takes up the role of a family, I hope we will find ways to maintain this.